You know unschooling is hot when New York Times is writing about. The aesthetic is tempting. Raise creative-free-thinking children by letting them navigate their education directly, pursuing knowledge in areas that interest them. I just don’t think it’s going to work for Cole (he’s six). And I don’t really believe that unlimited free play is beneficial past seven. Maybe I lean more towards the Swedish model… free play up to seven, then regular school with lots of play and outdoor time.

“But you travel Christine! You’re a natural unschooler!” – I know, but still no. I will put out the huge caveat that I think it works great for many families but for us, and specifically my son Cole, I don’t think it would work.

Before I get a bunch of messages from well-meaning unschoolers, let me just say this: hold up. I’m not doing it wrong, I don’t need tips, I’m not uninformed or need to research more. This was something that really pushed me away from unschooling, after a few years of hanging out on the different boards and seeing community leaders berate mothers for using the word “teach”. We do not “teach” in unschooling. Children learn. (Insert massive eye-roll from me, because it’s beyond magical thinking to believe even the words you use will somehow imprint upon your children for life. Our impact as parents is so far and away less than that.)

There’s a lot of people who push back on people like me and say “If you don’t think it works, you don’t understand it or you’re not doing it right.” That kind of logic loop means that absolutely any criticism of unschooling is flawed. Right?

It reminds me of the crunchy parenting community, which in a similar way is filled with thoughtful people sprinkled with a dash of zealots. I know it’s not everyone, but I definitely felt the chill when my natural birth ended up being a c-section. I realized early on that I didn’t want to belong to any of the parenting schools of thought. I just wanted to be me.

So I’ve thought carefully about unschooling and I’ve practiced many of its core tenets. I am a natural-style parent which means little things like letting my kids choose their food or bedtime, but also a lot of permission based parenting, where I explain things and offer choices, even when they are little.

I think freedom and choice are a big part of raising creative, self-starting kids. But there’s something else. Limits. Structure. Rules. They are part of my life and I have to think creatively about how to make them work in my favor every day. Is removing this from my child’s experience really helping him?

I do think there’s an extreme side to structure that can be crushing, but we’re talking about homeschooling here. We can try anything! Let’s think about how to solve all the problems.

What unschooling doesn’t address for me:

-If it’s child-led how do they learn to stick with projects past that painful early phase?
-If they’ve never had adversity where does their drive come from?
-How do they experience things outside their core interests (which may be something they end up loving) if they become too narrowly focused in their early years?

I remember writing a 100 page term paper in the 8th grade. It was a year-long project and it counted for 50% of our grade. I got an A+ on it. It was about the Great Depression – boring! It was so painful to write, a topic I had no interest in, but afterwards I had changed. I knew I could tackle a massive, even unpleasant project. I had that confidence.

The year after that I was homeschooled. I finished my 9th grade English book in six weeks. Then I rode horses every day because I happened to live with my aunt who ran a horse stable. That was an excellent time and I learned about my limits and faced my fears, barreling down a forest trail on a too-wild-for-me horse who would leap over fallen logs without warning as I tried to duck branches. I learned that I was brave.

Neither of those things were chosen by me. I spent my free (child-led) summer doing absolutely nothing. I watched TV. I laid around. I know that unschooling isn’t necessarily leaving your child to their devices but what would be wrong with some adult imposed structure?

Here is the big question: if I force my child to do something awesome, like learn how to ride a horse, is it less impactful then if they choose it themselves?

How big of a deal is control in the education equation?

Honestly. This is a really big question. This is the crux of unschooling. But does it actually matter?

When we look at traditional school it’s easy to point to the lack of control as the major factor. But I’d argue that it’s really about resources.

School often fails to inspire because it’s not customized to each child enough. The projects are limited or watered-down because of a lack of funding. A lot of what teachers have to deal with is purely crowd control. Sometimes we can look at what is different from school and child-led unschooling and assume the benefits are coming from the style of instruction, when really any child who had one-on-one mentoring, vastly increased resources and engaged parents would excel when compared to the standard public school education.

Often unschoolers compare themselves against public school children, but I think to be convincing they need to compare against other homeschooled children. Are they really getting better outcomes?

I suspect it’s possible 90% of the benefits of unschooling are really about resources and mentoring and have little to do with a purely “child-led” education.

So then what?

In the same way, it doesn’t hurt to unschool. None of these children are being harmed, and for sure their education is better than being in a classroom with 30 other kids. But I have specific ambitions for my children. I want them to continue their bilingual education. If I left that to Cole, he might not choose it and his not-yet-fully-developed brain can’t really see that far into the future to measure potential reward. So I make that decision for him.

As Cole gets older, I also want him to play outside more. I want him to experience what I did as a child. Because we don’t live in a rural town, on the edge of 20 acres of forest, I have to create that for him. If I ask him right now, “Cole do you want to go camping?” he would say, “No, thanks.” (He’s unfailingly polite, even as he rejects my prompts.)

Getting what you want isn’t necessarily good. Having to do things you don’t like isn’t great either. But we’re on a spectrum here… it doesn’t have to be one extreme or the other. I’m not talking about setting arbitrary rules to teach a lesson about discipline, I’m instead saying, let’s use our power as parents to shape their focus. What if we have somewhat child-led learning with parental oversight and structure? Core subjects of “playing outside” and “speaking Spanish” plus “playing with your sister” and “attempting big projects with mom – like making a zombie village attacked by megalodons” and of course an ungodly amount of “playing video games” because that’s the one thing Cole would choose everyday, hands down. I’m fine with him using his time on what matters most for him, but I also want to cover all our bases and make sure he’s getting a well-rounded education – even if that means I have to step in.

So how do we do it exactly? Oh god, I don’t know. I just wanted to open up this discussion because I’m still figuring it out too. This summer we’re experimenting with camping, traveling, foraging, learning about birds and animal tracks and how to fish. Speaking in Spanish at least 30% of the time. I’ve designed a plan, but I’m flexible. I want him to ride his bike more. I want him to start reading. I’ll go where the kids lead me, but I’ll also push them to try things that challenge them. Lovingly, carefully but strategically. We have language arts and math textbooks. They’ll have endless hours of unstructured play. This summer I’m testing a hybrid model. I’ll tweak and change as we go. Maybe it’ll look completely differently by the fall. There’s not a brand of homeschooling for this, there’s no movement, and maybe that’s a good thing. It’s just trying to create high quality humans by exposing them to what’s amazing about the world, giving them opportunities to grow and learn that are customized to their style and personality, and yes, quite often, stepping back and letting them take the wheel.

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#mothertongue World Book Tour update: I’m very happy to announce that Kim Dinan is the randomly selected winner of the Moleskin notebook! Kim email me and I’ll send it to you. We have two more drawings left before June 1st! Just snap a pic of Mother Tongue, post it to social media and tag me and the hashtag #mothertongue to enter! Cheers!